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I’m Ready for my Close-up Mr. De Mille

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In view of Dom Pisano’s blog on the IMAX films, I thought I might offer some comment on what it is like to see yourself five stories tall on the BIG screen.  I have appeared in two IMAX films. The first, On the Wing (1986) was directed by Bayley Silleck and Francis Thompson. Rick Young, an old friend, built and flew the 1902 Wright glider featured in that film. Another friend, Ken Kellett built and flew the replica 1903 Wright Flyer that flies (almost) in the film. In the scenes with the 1902 glider, I am dressed as a member of the US Lifesaving Service, one of the fellows who assisted the Wright brothers. In the scenes with the 1903 powered airplane, I am one of the Lifesavers on either wingtip during take-off. My son Nathan, then thirteen, was released from school so that he could play the role of Tom Tate, a young Outer Banker who befriended the Wrights.  When the film was released, Nate got a letter from Grady Tate, elderly son of the real Tom Tate, congratulating him on his performance.  I still think that was pretty neat.  I hasten to add that Nate and I were by no means the real stars of  On The Wing. Beyond question, that was a full-scale, flying, replica of Quetzacoatlus Northropi, built and flown via radio control by Paul Macready and his crew at AeroVironment. If memory serves, the big mechanical pteranodon flew just long enough for them to get one good shot of it in the air.

I actually had a speaking part in The Magic of Flight (1986), my second and last turn before the IMAX camera. Directed by Greg  MacGillivray, this film was produced for the National Museum of Naval Aviation. When MacGillvray first asked me to fly to his studio in Laguna Beach to describe what the Wright brothers had accomplished and how, I said thanks, but no thanks. The idea of me as a “talking head” with a face forty feet tall was not all that appealing. My boss at the time, Don Engen, a retired admiral and great friend of the folks in Pensacola, thought otherwise. If that’s what the Navy wanted, he was there to see that they got it. So, off I flew to Orange County. In the end it was not so bad. At our annual Air & Scare celebration at the Udvar-Hazy Center a few years ago, I was innocently standing in front of some display cases explaining things to our visitors, all clad in Halloween costumes. I noticed a four year old kid standing in front of me, staring up at my face. His mother walked up and apologized, explaining that they had a home video copy of The Magic of Flight, which her son had watched over and over.  “Go ahead,” his mother said, “show him.” The kid immediately began to explain the three axes of flight – pitch, role and yaw, just as I had done it in the film. Hey, as Andy Warhol opined, everybody deserves their fifteen minutes of fame.

Tom D. Crouch is the senior curator in the aeronautics division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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One thought on “I’m Ready for my Close-up Mr. De Mille

  1. Following Tom’s comment – I recall when the film premiered, someone quoted Cloris Leachman somewhere (maybe in the Washington Post?) saying it was tough to be able to act when you knew your teeth would be the size of refrigerators.

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